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"Good morning, Maggie—if you like this hot, sticky weather." Darcy Wilkins, my secretary-receptionist and jill-of-all-trades, dropped the mail on my desk.
"Like it or not," I said, "it'll be this way for the next six months. Thank God for air-conditioning."
Darcy handed me a jumbo French-vanilla latte from the bookstore coffee shop downstairs and settled on the sofa in my office. Cupping a mug of green tea in her capable dark hands, she propped her feet on the coffee table and waited for further instructions.
In the far corner of the sofa, Roger, the pug I'd inherited from a former client, slept undisturbed, his legs straight in the air in the dying cockroach position, head hanging backward over the cushion's edge. His snuffling snore mixed with the rumble of traffic on Main Street one storey below where the morning rush could be heard, even through closed windows and above the hum of central cooling.
I sorted through the stack of envelopes and set aside the utility bills for Darcy to handle. My morning started going downhill at the sight of an oversize white linen envelope addressed to Miss Margaret Skerritt, Pelican Bay Investigations, Pelican Bay, Florida. In the same elegant script, the return address indicated the plump package was from Mrs. Philip Skerritt, my mother.
Knowing what I'd find, I slit the envelope and dumped its contents on my desktop with a sigh.
"June is busting out all over," I said to Darcy, "and I'm running out of places to hide."
She arched an eyebrow in question. Roger snored louder.
"Hide?" Darcy said with a hint of disbelief. "I wouldn't think you, a tough ex-cop and Pelican Bay's finest female private eye, would hide from anything."
"I'm the city's only woman P.I.," I said, "and if you had my mother, you'd be looking for a bolt hole, too."
I indicated the pile of brochures and magazine and newspaper clippings heaped on my desk. "Everywhere I look are articles on planning weddings and ads for brides' dresses, florists, caterers, and honeymoon travel packages. The newspapers are filled with wedding announcements. And, to make certain that I don't miss something, Mother gathers them all up and sends them to me."
"But you're not getting married until Valentine's Day. That's more than eight months away."
"And I thought you and Bill had agreed on a small wedding?"
She pointed to the small mountain of materials on my desktop. "Then why the bridal blitz?"
Why, indeed? "Mother dear, who has ignored me my entire life, had a change of heart in April after she suffered what might have been a fatal stroke. Now she's determined to compensate for her former neglect by throwing me the biggest wedding Pelican Bay has ever seen." I shuddered. "And when she and Caroline put their heads together, you can bet they're planning an extravaganza to rival the distant nuptials of Charles and Diana. The only thing missing will be global television coverage."
Darcy shrugged. "Can't you just say no?"
"Mother's selectively deaf when she doesn't want to hear something."
"And your sister?"
"Caroline thinks I'm being coy. My sister can't believe there's a woman on earth who doesn't want a huge, elaborate wedding. It involves shopping, after all, Caroline's raison d'être."
"And what does Bill say?"
I shook my head. "He's no help. He says he'll go along with whatever I decide."
"And you've decided?"
I nodded. "No big wedding."
"Then there's no problem."
"Except breaking that news to my mother and sister, who refuse to accept the fact. They're pushing me now to sign up for bridal registries."
"That's not a bad idea."
"But we don't need anything. I have my furnished condo, and Bill's family home in Plant City is full of his parents' antique furniture and his mother's china, silver, and crystal."
"There must be something you want."
I thought for a second. "I could use a new sidearm."
"There you go," she said with a grin that exposed perfect white teeth. "Register at Cole's Gun Shop."
"And give my mother another stroke? I don't think so. I couldn't live with the guilt."
"Where's your groom-to-be today?"
"Helping the Pelican Bay Historical Society by running free background checks on their volunteers."
Darcy looked surprised. "They research their volunteers? Aren't most of them little old ladies?"
"The museum docents present several programs a year for children. The director figures he can't be too careful."
Darcy nodded, her expression solemn, and I guessed she was thinking what I was. Our last major case had involved a pedophile who had murdered three young girls in Tampa. Checking out anyone who worked with kids was no longer optional. It was a necessity.
Darcy drained the last of her tea and pushed to her feet. I handed her the bills to pay, and she went into the reception area and closed the door behind her.
I picked up the wastebasket and swept my arm across the top of my desk to file Mother's latest correspondence. I wished I could dispose of my reservations about my rapidly approaching marriage as easily.
Bill Malcolm, my fiancé and co-owner of Pelican Bay Investigations, had been my first partner when I'd joined the Tampa Police Department twenty-three years ago. He'd also been my best friend almost that long, even when I transferred to the Pelican Bay Department after seven years with Tampa. Last Christmas, he'd proposed. I loved him, without doubt, but whether I was marriage material remained to be seen. I'd led a schizophrenic life. Raised in privilege and wealth, I'd changed course at twenty-six to become a police officer when the love of my youth, an ER doctor, had been murdered by a crack addict. I'd dived headfirst from the height of society into the underworld of crime.
Earlier this year, after more than two decades as a police officer, I'd retired from the force. But as a private investigator, I still straddled both worlds, belonging in neither. Police work had been all-consuming, and I'd had no time for diversions, no hobbies and very few friendships, besides Bill. I'd grown solitary, withdrawn, and set in my ways. Somewhere along the way, I'd forgotten how to enjoy living. My first career had been as a librarian, yet over the years, I'd rarely taken the opportunity to read, which at one time had been one of my greatest pleasures.
Although I'd committed to marry Bill—we'd even closed last month on a house we had bought together—I feared I didn't have what it took to live the rest of my life with another human being, even one as wonderful as Bill.
Especially one as wonderful as Bill.
My biggest concern was that I would either drive him nuts or out of my life entirely.
I looked at Roger, still sleeping peacefully, if not quietly. I had committed to owning a dog and surprised myself by enjoying it. Maybe there was hope for me yet.
A knock sounded, and Darcy slipped into my office and closed the door behind her.
"You've got visitors."
She hesitated. "I think so."
"You're not sure?"
"It's Wanda Weiland."
My heart stopped. "The wedding planner?"
She nodded and flashed an apologetic smile. "As in Weddings by Wanda."
My fight-or-flight response kicked in, raising my pulse and respiration rate, as I considered the possibility that Wanda had been sent by my mother. An ambush on my own turf.
"She's not alone," Darcy added.
"Please tell me my mother's not with her." I gazed at the second-story window and contemplated a jump as my only means of escape.
Roger, now wide awake and on alert, watched me with an eager look, as if reading my thoughts. He flashed his full-focus grin and wagged his tail. If I jumped, Roger would follow. The crazy pooch was game for anything.
I considered my options. The fall probably wouldn't kill me, but I might break a leg, so I couldn't run. Unable to flee, I'd be completely at Mother's mercy. I abandoned the idea of a header onto Main Street and sucked up to face the music.
"The other woman isn't your mother," Darcy said.
"She's younger than your mother, but older than you."
"Not Caroline?" I could probably get rid of the wedding planner, but I didn't want to be double-teamed by my persistent older sister.
Darcy shook her head. "I've met Caroline. It's not her, but whoever she is, she's too distraught to give her name."